The Pool

oceanwaves

I clutched her little body to my chest as we bobbed in the clean warmth of the water.  I was careful to hold her up so her lips stayed above the surface as she chattered.  She was wearing a life preserver, so there was no real danger of her slipping below the water, even though I was aware that we were nearing the point where the bottom of the pool slopes away. Sure enough, in one more step the bottom fell away and disappeared.  I was over my head, treading water.  A sense of panic—born of a childhood experience of being over my head and held down against my will—rose up.

It was a hot, humid day and the pool was packed.  Children dove and splashed, turned and swam.  Squeals and shouts and laughter rang out all around us.  She was laughing, too, until a small wave caught her just as she took a breath.  She sputtered and choked.  “This pool is wavy,” she remarked after one last cough.

Before I could answer her, a great, guttural sense of grief washed over me.  Within my mind and against my will I was in a place thousands of miles from our sunshiny-safe existence.  For that one brief moment I was a salt-soaked refugee, clinging desperately to his child in the middle of an unforgiving sea.

My feet scrambled and searched for a place to touch.  As I inched my way to the side of the pool with my granddaughter’s arms clinging happily around my neck, I could not shake the sense of despair I felt for the refugee.  The sea’s salt waves are relentless and his feet cannot touch.

My heart cannot shake the sadness it feels for thousands of those who would gladly take my place on this beautiful day.  Climbing from the pool to dry off, both guilt and gratitude fight for a space within my heart.  All I can do is pray that the refugees find the sanctuary of a welcoming shore.

Shades Of Brown

The Untamed Landscape by Theodore Rousseau

We were driving along an interstate highway on a February day, just the two of us. I have no recollection of where we were headed or whether it was sunny or overcast, but I remember being grateful for the heater that kept the chill away from his bones. He felt the cold more keenly than I did, so I purposely set it warmer than I would have liked. I drove no faster than the speed limit and kept to the right lane, passing cars sparingly and using my blinker as I had been taught. I gently pointed out each approaching rest stop in case he hadn’t noticed the road signs–he often needed to stop a while to stretch his legs. Our trip was a leisurely, comfortable one with conversation that flowed around moments of intermittent silence–the kinds of pauses whose durations are not discernable between two people who are at ease with one another.

I remember making a mental note of how bleak the landscape seemed as we passed mile after mile of leafless tree limbs, skeletal foliage, and ice-encrusted rocks.  It was at that exact moment he said it:  “Who would have thought there could be so many shades of brown?”

His casual observation caught me by surprise.  He could not have known what I had been thinking just a moment before, and the very coincidence of it seemed like an unintended rebuke for allowing myself to sink into negative space.  His comment tugged at my better nature. I was seeing “bleakness” while he was marveling at the “many shades of brown.”  He had chosen to share this with me at exactly the moment that I could see nothing but lifelessness.  Could this be an example of the Universe using a serendipitous collision of two mindsets to teach me a lesson?

The lesson was not lost on me.  Within an instant, the snowless winterscape became a panoply of possibility.  Different shades of brown emerged and moments later, a subtler assortment of browns made themselves known to me–each vibrant in its own right, worthy of being given its own name and place in Nature’s crayon box.

Grey-brown tree limbs reached up to finger the wind as green-brown grass lay flattened, resting.  Tanned-brown cattail heads stood stalwart against an onslaught of cold.  Purple-brown berry vines bowed in gentle tangles of repose against a millennian backdrop of black-brown rock.   Russet-brown leaves huddled along the roadside edges, chasing the cars as they passed.  What had seemed lifeless and bleak just moments before became fully alive and transformed by a change of mindset and a willingness to see beyond the surface.

I’ve thought about all the ways my father transformed my life without even knowing he had done so.  I never shared with him how his off-hand comment about “the many shades of brown” in winter affected me.  That one moment in time tripped a reset button in my mind and heart, opening my eyes to a world of beauty which had always been there.  It was hidden in plain sight along the interstate, waiting for me to be ready to see it one cold winter day.

First Kiss, Last Kiss: A True Story

The Kiss, by Francois-Henri GallandDecember, 1970

It was ten o’clock and my parents were already in bed. They were not fond of the idea of late-night visitors—especially young men–but for some reason, they did not object when I broached the subject earlier in the day. Maybe that was because I didn’t ask them if it was alright; I told them instead.  I felt quite bold.

“Phil wants to stop in after work.  He can’t be here until about ten o’clock, but he won’t stay long.  We’ll be quiet.” The sideways, raised-eyebrow glance I got was as good as a yes.

Christmas was only a few days away and it was snowing.  He decided to walk the mile from his house to mine rather than worry his mother by taking the car on the increasingly slippery roads. Although he had often popped in for a quick hello with his friends in tow throughout the summer, this was his first real visit.  His first alone visit.

My parents’ house was a modest one.  All the rooms were small, tightly constructed, and hopelessly connected.  No matter what room we chose to sit in, there would be the worry that my parents’ sleep might be disturbed by the muffled sounds of our conversation. I was equally afraid that they may misinterpret the innocent sounds of human movement: the groan made by an old chair as one arises from it, the sounds coming from a creaky couch as one shifts his weight.

If my parents were awakened, surely my mother would nudge my father, signaling to him that it was time to arise from the warmth of his side of the bed, put on his robe and slippers, and pad down the hallway to tell us that “visiting hours” were over.  I didn’t want that to happen, so I chose the back porch for our visit.

My father had built the porch himself many years before.  It was a lovely place to sit in the warmer weather, but could not be comfortably used any other time of year until he had installed a wood-burning stove a few months before.  On this night, Dad had lit the fire before dinner and had banked its ashes before bedtime.  As the embers died out, the porch grew steadily colder.  I wondered if Philip felt the cold.

We whispered around melodies of music playing ever so quietly.  Snowflakes pirouetted in the moonlight as we spoke in soft tones of everything and nothing. It was so easy to be with him.  He was open and honest, funny and sensitive, warm and reassuring.  I felt shy and quite in awe of him.

The kitchen clock, visible from the porch doorway, reminded us that midnight was approaching.  As snowflakes turned icy and threw themselves against the porch windows, Philip stood up to begin his journey home.  We turned to one another and settled into the warmth and calm of a first embrace.

The sacred space between us melded together as our lips barely touched, then gently lingered.  Time loosened its hold upon us, the world fell away, the cosmos became a bystander of little consequence. 

This was not the hard, passionate, no-holds-barred, too-much-too-soon kiss of passion-filled, newfound lovers.  It was the love-flooded kind of kiss a mother gives her newborn child—sweet and soft, filled with aching gratitude.  Our hearts eased open, then settled into calm certainty.  In the space of one tentative, lingering kiss, our destiny revealed itself:  we would share our lives “until death do us part.”

The story of our first kiss achieved legendary status and Philip relished the retelling.

“We were on your porch and it was Christmas time.  It was snowing and I had to walk home, but I don’t remember my feet ever touching the ground.  I knew I loved you right then and there.  That was some kiss.”

December 23, 2004

It was snowing and no amount of warmth could chase away the cold.  I was lying on Philip’s side of the bed, trying to fill it up.  I could not find the rhythm of ordinary breath; violent spasms of sorrow choked me.  My heart pounded with such fierce relentlessness that I began to wonder if I would die on that very night.  I clutched the pillow to my chest to calm the wildness from my heart.  Desperately needing the respite that an hour or two of sleep would provide, I prayed shamelessly for relief from this new-found and awful exhaustion, this gut-wrenching grief, these thousands of unrelenting tears.

The clock next to our bed taunted me in the hours after midnight.  As night gave way to day, I begged God for a few moments of respite.  All things familiar looked foreign and menacing, reminders that nothing would ever be the same.  The world had turned cold and foreboding in the space of a heartbeat—the one unsuspecting moment when “ until death do us part” came calling.  Eyes raw, body pummeled, my heart was broken open.

Sleep mercifully came when night surrendered its hold over the day. It was an uneasy sleep—only deep enough and long enough to dream a vivid dream.

Philip and I were riding in a Volkswagen—the kind we used to refer to as a “beetle” because of its shape–with a manual stick shift between the two front seats.  He was driving and although we were very cramped in such a small car, we were very happy together.  We were laughing and talking as we drove through an unfamiliar town, looking for a place to buy something sweet to eat.  Off to the left, we spotted a bakery and decided it would be nice to get one of those large, round, chocolate-chip cookies that we both liked.  Philip turned into the driveway, looking for a place to park behind the shop.  Instead, we came upon a brick wall—a dead end—in front of us.

As we came to a complete stop in front of the brick wall, my first thought was, “No problem.  We’ll just back up and look for another way.”  But Philip did not do that. Slowly he turned to me and smiled a small, gentle smile, the kind of smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. His wordless thoughts flooded my soul.

“I am sorry for doing this to you.  It was not my choice to go. Thank you for loving me, for believing in me, for refusing to abandon me when I was at my worst.”

His good-by eyes were sad and tender and resigned.  I felt fear and confusion.  I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just put the car in reverse and back it up away from the wall.  He took his hands off the steering wheel, closed his eyes, and leaned toward me.  As I turned to him, our lips touched softly and lingered.  It was the same gentle, tentative kiss we had shared on my back porch some thirty-four years before. Time had stopped, the world we knew crumbled and fell away, and the cosmos became a patient bystander, waiting to take him away to a place I could not go.

My fingers went straight to my lips as I awoke.  With great heaving sobs of sorrow and gratitude, I knew that this was Philip’s final good-by gift to me—a kiss, our kiss—the kiss that had marked the beginning and now the ending of our lives together.

Like time coming back around itself, the two kisses had become one: a first kiss, gently sealing a promise of deepening love and commitment, and a last kiss, filled with a lifetime of gratitude, acknowledging that promise fulfilled.

 

The First Time I Saw My Father Cry: November 22, 1963

I’m sure my father cried well before the time I saw him. There had been sadness and loss in our home in the days after my Grandpa—his own father—died. Three years before that, a pall of grief and sorrow settled upon us and never quite went away after my mother came home from Mercy Hospital with empty arms—arms that should have held her infant daughter, their third child. When I think upon it now, I’m sure he was crying during the times that he could not be found. Dad never went far, but I’m sure he hid somewhere when the emotions that embarrassed and confounded him threatened to spill over.

I remember the first time I saw my father cry. It scared me to see him that way, like maybe life wasn’t as secure and predictable as he had always made it seem. After the day of seeing him cry, I looked at my dad with vigilant eyes. He was my weather vane, my barometer. I began taking notice of how things affected him. I felt my happiest when he looked happy.
It was a Friday afternoon in late November, 1963. An unspeakable act had been committed: our thirty-fifth president was shot and killed by an assassin as he rode in an open convertible through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Coverage of this national tragedy dominated the airwaves throughout the weekend. It had never been our custom to leave the television on during the day, but the enormity of the tragedy required an exception. A relentless, gray-blue beacon of solemn sorrow emanated throughout our home, reminding us of our nation’s collective grief. At times one or another of us would sit and watch for a while. Most of the time we silently tiptoed past it in much the same way as we tiptoed upon arriving at church after mass had already begun. Our house was errily quiet.
When I realized that I hadn’t seen my father for several hours, I went looking for him. Our car was in the driveway, which meant he was home, but he wasn’t outside or in the garage. That left the basement.
Dad had high hopes for the basement after he had refinished it. He regarded it as a play room for his children and a spacious place for family gatherings. He paneled it in a pale, golden wood tone, put down a ken-tile floor, and built a well-stocked bar overlooking a fish tank full of live-bearing guppies with neon-colored tails. The main room was decorated in a nautical theme, and a portable, black and white TV rounded out the furnishings. “Why don’t you play in the basement?” my mother would ask, but I never did unless there were lots of cousins down there with me at holiday time. No matter what Dad had done to it, it was still a basement, and no matter how much I tried to tell myself that there was nothing down there that could hurt me, it was still a dark and scary place.
I opened the basement door and peered down the stairs. A blue, flickering light lit my way as I crept down each stair. When I reached the bottom step, my eyes followed the glow of the television to the place where my dad sat. He was bent forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He was weeping silently, holding his head in his hands.
John Kennedy and Dad were about the same age. Both of them served in the South Pacific during the war, came home, married, had children, and made a life for themselves. Dad had voted for JFK, who was a Roman Catholic and a Democrat. The president’s lovely young wife captivated us with her beauty and grace. His children amused us by playing under the president’s desk in the Oval Office. There was youth and vitality in the White House again. “It is Camelot,” people said.
As our young president lay in State in the Capitol Rotunda, as his black-veiled widow knelt beside his casket, as his three-year-old son saluted him, Dad wept for all that had been lost.
I do not know whether my father sensed that I was there with him for those brief moments. I did not call out to him, and he did not look up. I crept back up the steps, being careful to avoid the creaky places that I knew by heart. We never spoke of it, and it wasn’t until many years later that I ever told anyone about my father’s secret tears.
In his later years my dad and I cried together–mostly after bourbon manhattans and mostly over regrets. After years of holding them at bay, the things he had done during the war years demanded a voice. He told his stories and asked me if I thought it was possible that God might punish his grandchildren or his great-grandchildren for the sins he had committed. Tears came freely and emptied themselves down our cheeks as he spoke of atrocities and the possibility of forgiveness.
As my mind reached back through the decades to that first time I had seen him cry alone in the darkness of our basement, I wondered if he sensed how far he had come. In the twilight of his years, my father was finally ready to share his tears in the full light of day.

Children Always Know

grieving mother sculpture

Children always know when something is wrong.   Adults may think they are shielding them from grief, anguish, and sorrow, but children take it all in and feel it anyway.  If adults aren’t square with them, if they don’t acknowledge their own feelings and level with their children, their little minds will fill in the blanks, making them fearful and anxious in the absence of hard facts. 

There was a time when people thought children could not possibly feel the sorrow that adults feel.  Conventional wisdom led those adults to believe that it was best to leave children out of the grief process, to spare them as if sorrow could not possibly concern them.  It doesn’t matter whether this attitude was born of ignorance or expediency; the result was the same–for the children who felt the sorrow but didn’t understand what was causing it, it was like being dropped off on a strange street corner far from home in the middle of the night.  Alone.  Emotionally abandoned.  

You may wonder how I know all this.  I learned it firsthand.

The birth of my first sibling took me by surprise.  I have no memory of having noticed my mother’s rounding belly, signaling my brother’s impending birth.  It wasn’t pointed out to me or discussed in front of me.  I don’t remember any gleeful adult chatter about the prospect of becoming a big sister.  No one asked me if I wanted a little brother or a little sister. I was only three then, and it was the early 1950’s–a time of emotional restraint, a time when children were still expected to be seen and not heard—a time when a woman did not announce her condition until well after the first trimester, when her belly could speak the words for her.

No one used the word “pregnant” in polite company back then and to this day, the very word sounds crude to my ears.  It was, instead, referred to as a “blessed event” or “being in the family way.”  It was certainly considered inappropriate to speak about such things in front of children and so when my brother was born in early November, 1953, it was quite literally as if he had magically appeared and was brought home to live with us.

My mother had been taken to Mercy Hospital in the middle of the night to have her third child in the Spring of 1956. I was six years old by this time and I remember being wildly excited for the possibility of a baby sister, chatting merrily and excessively about the baby, asking my grandmother when mommy and the new baby would come home.  The more my questions were left unanswered, the more insistently I asked them.

But something wasn’t quite right.

My daddy, usually so sunny and animated, seemed sad and distant.   It was impossible for me to know what was wrong, but I felt his sadness and it scared me.  I tried to make him laugh.  The best I could draw from him was a weak smile. The adults spoke together in hushed, closed circles.  I couldn’t hear their actual words, just their somber tones.  A sense of dread settled deep within my stomach.

I was sent to my cousins’ house after school.  I had never been sent there before and my stomach ache grew worse.   Even though they lived in the same neighborhood, I felt like I was being banished to a foreign land.  Although they were my second-cousins and they lived around the corner, I never went there to play.  Only now can I admit that I never really felt comfortable around them.  I never really liked them.

There was a lot of drama and yelling in my cousins’ household—lots of teasing, complaining, tattling, yelling.  I didn’t want to be around people who yelled.  I wanted to go home where things were calm and predictable, but the dread that filled my belly warned me that there was a good chance that place didn’t exist anymore.

The girls on their street played different games than we played on my block.  One of the games involved laying on our backs in the grass and looking up at the clouds to see what shapes emerged. When we saw a shape, we were supposed to call it out.  I remember stretching out on the front lawn with them and dutifully looking up, but I didn’t want to look at the clouds.  I just wanted to go home.  A terrible headache blurred my eyes and my stomach was filled with dread.  I just wanted to be home in my own bed, so I got up and began to walk away.  I was half way home before they chased me down and brought me back.

Dinner felt strange at their house.  They sprinkled sugar on their tomato slices rather than salt.  I so desperately wanted to go home where things made sense.  Putting sugar on tomatoes made no sense to me.  To this day I remember those tomatoes and how strange and unwelcoming it felt to sit at their dinner table.  I felt trapped and vowed never to go back there ever again.

The next day my grandma arrived and I was able to sleep in my own bed.  My mother and father were still suspiciously absent, but I felt grateful to be in my own home with my grandma.  I played with my own friends on my own block and my stomach stopped hurting for a while. I began to relax until I caught the words of our neighbor who came to speak to my grandma over the split rail fence as she hung the wash on the clothesline.

My neighbor spoke in hushed tones, but just loud enough for me to hear.  Impossible words tumbled from her lips, “I am so sorry.”

My mommy and my new baby sister were due to come home the next afternoon.  It was decided that I should be allowed to stay home from school to welcome them.  I remember being in the bathroom that morning, ecstatically brushing my teeth when my grandma came in.  She spoke in a solid, authoritative voice, giving me no hint of what was to come.

“Mommy is coming home today, but she won’t be bringing home the baby.  The baby died.”  I dropped my toothbrush and burst into messy, gulping, howling tears.  My grandma continued as best as she could.  I remember the hitch in her voice as she spoke.

“Now stop crying and wash your face.  You need to be a good girl for your mother.  She is very sad.”

I tried to be a good girl.  I tried to be helpful and cooperative and quiet, but I was only six.  Years later I suffered from depression, and in therapy I learned that unresolved childhood grief can result in depression later in life.

I was not encouraged to cry for my baby sister or talk about her and in all the years after her death, we rarely spoke her name.   A nurse had hastily baptized her before she took her last breath, christening her with the name Bernadette.  Her name, so unlike any name our parents would have chosen, was the only proof that she had ever existed.

Bernadette.  My confirmation name.

Bernadette.  The middle name my parents chose for my second baby sister—the one who did come home with mommy two years later.

Bernadette. After sixty years, I can still feel the dread of not knowing. And I still cry for you.

Of Slow-Motion Magic and Bent-Kneed Miracles

2015-10-17 Hidden miracles of Autumn 004

Autumn trees are magicians.  They work slow-motion magic in the silence of October nights as darkness wrestles minutes from each day.  Preordained frost becomes their magic wand, turning weary leaves crimson, russet, persimmon, scarlet, gold.

Summer’s steady, stalwart green transforms against its will, becoming showy flash and fiery glow.  Sweatered seekers roam rural roadsides for Autumn’s treasure–apples, cornstalks, pumpkins, cider, pots of mums, and flowering kale. But Autumn’s magic does not end with these alone.

There is so much more to see.

There are humbler miracles–low to the ground–easy to miss in deep Fall.  Stealthy chill fingers turn flower stems dry and leaves to mottled gray.  As their little lives ebb, they crumble and bend under the weight of crisp seed pods which crack and open in the sun, releasing tiny promises to the ground below.

In deep Fall the once pert and perfect gardens of Summer become wizened tangles of naked stalks and fallen leaves and bowed brown flower heads.   Upon a closer, bent-kneed look, good fortune may show you a final bloom—small, vibrant, perfect–a final gift before the frost.  These tiny gifts sit still and wait for keener eyes to see.  They are the magical ones—the ones who have summoned their waning energy for one last chance to blossom, giving us a final gasp of beauty before the hard frost.

What Do You Believe Is True?

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I tried to remember the exact wording to the answers to all those questions in my Baltimore Catechism, I really did.   We were expected to have all our answers memorized in order to receive our First Holy Communion.  When it came right down to it, I chose to answer the questions in my own words when it was my time to be quizzed by our parish priest.  He frowned and his fountain pen hovered over my name; he was ready to cross me off his list.

“She’s not ready,” the priest told my mother and the Josephite nun who happened to be my catechism teacher.  My mother was deeply embarrassed for me and for herself.  She had been the one who sat with me after dinner every night, going over and over the required questions and their exact answers in preparation for this moment.  She could have told the priest that I really did know the answers, that we had studied faithfully each night, that I tended to answer with my own words, but she couldn’t find her voice.

“Begging your pardon, Father…” began the nun.  She proceeded to speak on my behalf–quite a bold thing for a nun to do in 1956.  Priests always had the last word back then and it was a nun’s duty to obey.  I received my First Holy Communion with all the other squirmy six-year-olds in my class that Spring.  So began my bumpy relationship with a god I wasn’t particularly fond of.

The catechism was eventually put aside, but the questions kept coming.  The answers were elusive and unsatisfying.

If God was All-loving and forgiving, how could he condemn any of His people to eternal separation from Him?  If He had given us free will–the ability to make choices for ourselves–why had religion become so rigid and fearful of change? Why was it so wrong of Eve to want the knowledge of good and evil?  What kind of twisted father allowed his son to be tortured and killed without putting up a fight to save him?  What was it about those core beliefs that allowed people throughout history to persecute, torture, and kill one another?  When people say “God is love,” what does that really mean?

Questions with absolute answers.  The absurdity of it.

Questions with absolute answers keep us compliant and spiritually lazy.  You cannot grab what is unknowable and put it neatly in a box.  If you do, you are cheating yourself out of what is possible.  Our human-ness demands that we wrestle with faith.  The best we can do is stay open and respond with awe to what draws us in.

What do I really believe is true?

The question cannot be easily answered and we may spend years avoiding it, but it’s ready to jump us from behind in sober, unsuspecting moments.  It sits with us in times of torment and suffering and in times of unbearable loveliness, it opens the door a crack, giving us a fleeting glimpse of what is contained within. It urges us to take a hard look at our unfinished-ness and prods us to find where we fit.  Each of us, like the world we live in, is drawn to evolve forward to a point of completion. We live out our days intending to do well, but we waver.  All the while, we are silently called to the sanctity of wholeness.

What do you really believe is true?

The question arises from deep within the human condition.  It percolates within our DNA and hovers over us, riding on the noosphere–the Earth’s mental sheathe—the last of the many stages of our geologic history, as real as the biosphere beneath our feet.  The question is everywhere and it gently insists on being answered.

What do you really believe is true?

Without this self-knowledge, you are an unfinished work of art propped up in the corner of the cosmos, collecting dust.  You don’t have to subscribe to an organized, finite, orthodox point of view.  You have been given a choice in the matter.

We have free will.  It is paramount to being human.  We have the choice to believe and to act upon the choices before us.  In doing so, we are causing change to occur in the world.  We are participating in its evolution, thereby determining what the world will become.

Looking through the fog of reality with eyes and minds blurred by smoke and tears and maybe even blood, we seek the answer.   It is what we are called to do.